Through the latter half of the 20th century it seemed as though most of the biggest Pennsylvania bucks were taken during the "Good Old Days." Spikes and fork-horns made up a large part of the annual buck harvest.
Things have changed a lot with respect to Pennsylvania deer hunting. For trophy deer hunters, most changes have been for the better.
Age has proven to be the most important factor in producing quality bucks in Pennsylvania. Nutrition would rank second in importance. Genetics certainly is important in growing large antlers, but it seems that good genetics are not lacking in Pennsylvania. When we allow our bucks to grow old enough, plenty of them will have quality racks.
Still, a few areas stand out for producing the best antlers. These are the areas with the best combinations of age and nutrition.
Brad Nelson, a retired wildlife biologist who is coordinator of the Kinzua Quality Deer Cooperative, offered some insight into what it takes to manage forested land for trophy deer.
Forested land is the stereotypical deer habitat in Pennsylvania.
The KQDC, now in its 14th year, has been scientifically measuring the relationship between quality habitat and quality deer resulting from management practices. The KQDC is located in McKean County. It is made up of both public and private land. All of it is open to public hunting.
See the web site www.kqdc.com.
"[Management practices] have been successful in improving both the size of the racks and the weight of the deer," Nelson said. "You can see the size of some of the bucks coming into the checkpoints. They're so big. Before we started doing this, it was rare to get any over 2 1/2 (years old). Now we get a lot that are 3 1/2 (years old). Your jaw drops when you see some of them."
Two 6 1/2-year-old bucks were brought to KQDC check stations in the 2013 deer season. And those were not the only exceptionally old bucks seen at KQDC check stations during recent years.
"I attribute a lot of it to antler restrictions, of course," Nelson said. "The other thing, I don't think we get the hunting pressure we had when we started the KQDC."
With fewer hunters in the woods, hunters got the impression that deer numbers were even lower than reported simply because no one was keeping the deer moving.
The KQDC started with goals not yet seen in deer management in Pennsylvania forests.
"The whole goal was to try to reach a balance between the deer and the habitat. And really, you want to get to where the forest is regenerating," Nelson said.
One part of this goal was to eliminate the need of erecting deer exclosure fences around timber cuts. Across the vast forest of north-central Pennsylvania, deer numbers were so high before the start of the 21st Century that heavy browsing prevented forest regeneration.
The only trees that would grow in any significant numbers were silver maple and beech, neither of which are preferred browse. Certain species of fern covered great patches of the forest floor, shading out various kinds of low vegetation that are preferred deer diet items.
"We realize the value that hunters provide and we wanted to make sure we kept a hunt that would keep hunters satisfied," Nelson said.
Using good monitoring methods has been and integral part of the KQDC project. Monitoring allows changes to be measured by designed values as those changes occurred.
Pellet monitors the relationship between browse quality and deer numbers and measures the effect of the deer on the habitat.
Hunters bring their deer to voluntary check stations where deer are weighed and antlers are measured. Antler measurements include beam diameter, spread width and number of points.
Deer are also aged.
A simple hunter survey tracks hunter satisfaction. And, hunters can get useful information at checkpoints.
"One of our key messages is that hunters are an important part of the scenario. They're key to controlling the deer and helping the habitat. We certainly do want to keep them in the equation," Nelson said.
Antlerless deer licenses and Deer Management Permits are the primary methods of controlling deer populations.
One method of accommodating deer hunters has been opening roads that have not been open in the past. This has been only moderately successful, though.
"On the KQDC there's lots of good access," Nelson said. "But a lot of hunters seem to like to stay on the blacktop. A lot of dirt roads are good to drive, even in the snow. You've just got to know your vehicle.
"A lot of people don't go off the main road even when there's no snow."
Hunting pressure has not been measured as well as deer and forest health matters. Car counts have been the primary method of measuring it. Some information on where hunters go is derived from the check stations, where hunters plot the locations of their kills on maps.
"If hunters are honest about where they're getting their deer, they're pretty well spread over the landscape. The data seems to indicate there aren't more harvested close to the pavement."
Nelson has been operating a roving check station. This keeps him in contact with hunters. And he is a hunter.
Hunters tended to be opposed to management when it was causing the deer population to decline. Though there are fewer hunters now on the KQDC, as in many other parts of Pennsylvania, a larger portion now like being able to see larger bucks.
"I think there are people who understand what we do, and say 'keep doing it.' And there are some of them who just want to see a lot of deer. A lot are never going to change. Then you have some people who are just on the fence, a lot of the younger hunters," Nelson said.
"A surprising number out there get it. I think they understand the relationship between the habitat and the deer, and they understand the measures you have to take to get it in balance."
On varying levels, hunters have been facing this realization across Pennsylvania. Deer hunting is a different game now that it was a few decades ago. Nelson also has changed his hunting habits.
"Since I've been coordinator of KQDC I've been hunting in a lot of places where I have never been. Just being in a new area, there's always new things to see. Rock formations, steep ridges — sometimes it doesn't matter if you get anything."
Nelson's experiences with the KQDC has led him to suggestions that should help buck hunters across Pennsylvania.
"The more time you spend in the woods, the more deer you are going to be seeing. Learn the deer movement patterns, where they bed and where they feed. Acorn crops change from one year to the next, and deer tend to change what they're doing.
"You might think about moving into a more remote part of the forest."
Bucks harvested on the KQDC clearly show positive results from improving the relationship between deer and the habitat.
In 2001, the average weight of bucks taken to KQDC check stations was 114 pounds. The average weight had risen to nearly 138 pounds by the 2013 hunting season.
Average beam diameter has increased from 21 mm to more than 31 mm. Inside antler spread averages have improved from 10 inches to nearly 15 inches.
Deer populations on the KQDC have declined from a high of 29 deer per square mile in 2003 to 14 deer per square mile in 2013, indicating the relationship of deer density to trophy deer quality.
This same trend has been happening, in varying degrees, across Pennsylvania. The state has procuded 330 bucks archery bucks that scored at least 140 points and only only six of 66 counties have no entries at all on the list.
But some counties outdistance the rest. Bradford County leads with 19 entries. Berks County ranks second with 13 entries. Seven counties have 10 or more entries, and 13 counties have at least five entries.
Allegheny County is at the top of the top 10 archery typical deer entry scores since 2000, and produced the No. 1 buck taken in 2004. That buck scored 178-2 points. Beaver County had the number 4 entry, which scored 173-2 points. Number 3 was a Fayette County buck that scored 172-4 points.
The top scoring typical buck taken with firearm since 2000 is the number 3 buck taken from Dauphin County; it scored that scored 182 points. Second is a buck from Lackawanna County (ranking 6th overall) that scored 179-5 points. Third is a 12th-ranking Cambria County buck taken in 2010 that scored 175-3 points.
All of this antler data fortifies the notion that hunters are liable to encounter big bucks in any part of Pennsylvania. Also from the information provided about the KQDC, we should be able to determine better areas to hunt big bucks on a smaller scale.
Wildlife Management Units 1A and 1B include a lot of rich soils where agricultural crops are grown. Just about anywhere you hunt in 1A, you are likely to be very close to good bucks.
WMU 2B is made up of Pittsburgh and the immediately surrounding area. This is one of our most productive record buck areas. Bucks grow old here partly because hunters have difficulty gaining access to many places — if you have a place to hunt you may be in luck, but the odds against gaining access are high.
Get into the more remote parts of WMU 2G and you will leave nearly all other hunters behind. This is the place to find classic, old, Big-Woods bucks. Public forest is more widespread here than anywhere else in Pennsylvania. But low deer population densities make the hunting very challenging.
Bradford County, which straddles the border between WMU 3C and 3D, has more entries on the list of 140-class typical bucks taken by archery. Bucks in this class are in rarified territory. There is a mix of forested and agricultural land.
Public land covers 16 percent of WMU 3D. It is 74 percent forested, 11 percent developed and 6 percent agricultural fields. This is the area called the Poconos. There is a lot of flat swampland that makes terrible walking for hunters, but this is the case of difficult hunter access leading to good trophy buck potential.
WMU 4C includes three good trophy buck counties: Dauphin, Schuylkill, and Luzerne. Two distinct habitat types hold promise of big bucks — suburban areas and rugged mountain ridges. This combination provides a wide variety of options for big buck hunters.
Berks County, which is shared between WMU 5B and WMU 5C, is a leading county for big bucks. The general area of these units is agricultural land. Gaining access to private farmland can be difficult, but it is not impossible.
On an even more localized level, follow Brad Nelson's suggestion and spend a lot of time out on the habitat to learn as many details of deer habits as possible. Learn where deer feed, and their travel corridors. Learn where deer prefer to bed, but once these areas are located, stay away. Too much disturbance will cause major disruptions in big buck movements.
Confidence is very important, especially for trophy deer hunters. Next to actually seeing a big buck, capturing an image of a big buck on a trail camera is the best way to gain the confidence that is necessary to spend a lot of time at a stand.
Now are the good old days of trophy buck hunting in Pennsylvania. Ten of the top 24 typical bucks taken with firearms and 10 of the top 13 typical bucks taken with archery gear have been taken since 2000. Not coincidentally, this increase in big-buck production coincides with the period of the newer antler restrictions and reduced deer density.
Get more information about buck hunting in Pennsylvania from the Pennsylvania Game Commission, 2001 Elmerton Avenue, Harrisburg, PA 17110-9797, web site www.pgc,state.pa.us, or at www.GoHuntPA.org.